Author's Note: Set post-"The Third Level," a short story written about Artemis joining the Basadoni Guild. Dancer is a canon character from TTL. Co-written with Ariel D.
Artemis Entreri had a problem.
Sadly, the problem also had its own problem.
The young man climbed the stairs of the Basadoni guild house, making his way to Pasha Basadoni's office. It was half-past noon, the usual time that Entreri stirred given that his worknights usually ended around four in the morning. His footsteps were slow on the stairs because he was not at all certain of his course of action.
But he needed answers.
Twice now over the past tenday, Entreri had awakened in the middle of the night - or rather, morning - with a mess. He'd had a strange, almost formless dream, one with powerful but ill-defined feelings, then awakened to wetness. Unfortunately, he recognized the wetness based on past experiences he did his best not to think about. Also unfortunately, he had no idea why his body was producing said fluids in his sleep. He suspected it meant he was officially a man now, but that was not a comforting thought.
Even more unfortunately, Entreri had absolutely no one he could trust to ask about this phenomenon except for his mentor, Basadoni. And needless to say, he was not keen on approaching the topic with the pasha, either.
However, the disturbing presence of the liquid compelled him forward. He worded and reworded sentences in his mind, trying to figure out how to ask what he considered to be the most uncomfortable question possible. It didn't help that he wasn't sure exactly what he was asking about. It wasn't like anyone had ever discussed sex with him.
Granted, the other young men in the guild talked about sex a great deal - whom they wanted to bed, how many women they'd bedded, how good they were at sex, etc. They also showered the general listening audience with boasts out the length of their "equipment," their ability to have sexual marathons, and other such things Entreri had no interest in knowing.
Needless to say, none of this helped Entreri with his questions.
And so Entreri found himself traversing the top floor of the guild, passing the scantily-dressed women lounging about, and heading to Basadoni's office door.
Two guards stood on either side of the door, arms crossed. Entreri had been a lieutenant for two years now, though, so he merely gave them a look and they let him enter.
Entreri walked up to Basadoni's desk and gave him a short bow.
Basadoni smiled at him and gave a head tilt of acknowledgement. "Artemis." The pasha set down the quill in his hand. "What brings you to me? Another discussion in politics, perhaps?"
Entreri understood that Basadoni gifted him with more time than the others; it caused a mix of powerful feelings inside him. No doubt Basadoni would say it fed his pride. "Not politics, no." Over the last six months, they had ended up in lengthy discussions about the inner workings of Calimport - both the underbelly and the upper crust. If only that could be their topic today. "I'm here seeking information." Despite his preplanned speech, he found himself going blank.
"Information?" Basadoni stood and gestured to the sitting area across the office. He was not an ostentatious man, but he did have a collection of handsome, antique furniture adorned with pillows. "If I know it, I will share my store of information with you. Let us sit." He chuckled, already making his way towards his favorite chair. "Unless you would prefer to stand." During meetings Artemis was often the only person standing.
Entreri hovered for a moment, then perched on the edge of the chair nearest Basadoni's. He was far too tense to lean back. He stared at the older man for a minute, but there was no way to avoid this. He had to know, and Basadoni, with his many wives, concubines, and children, was likely to know the answer. "I have a question about sex." He noticed that his stomach had immediately clenched.
Basadoni nodded calmly, as if this were a normal topic to bring up. "Very well."
The sheer lack of reaction was strangely soothing. Entreri tried to regroup. "I know that men produce liquid." He knew it a bit too well. "But . . . " He trailed off, for once completely lost for words. That his body had suddenly produced said liquid was disturbing. That it did it without his consent or control was terrifying.
For a moment, all he could see was another man's fluids splattering over his skin.
In his distraction, Entreri rubbed his face. He'd had to start shaving a few months earlier; a few angry bumps on his cheek told him he'd managed to give himself razor burn this morning.
He realized after a moment that he'd lapsed into silence.
Basadoni nodded, slowly and thoughtfully. His eyes were wise. "As you grow older, your body changes into that of a man's. I notice that you have started shaving. Do you use shaving oil? Have you been shown the proper way to prepare one's face for shaving?"
Entreri shook his head. The weapons he'd chosen to fight with - a long sword and a dagger - were not magical, but they were made of fine steel. Fine steel that he kept so sharp that he could lift the rough hairs from his face. He did not like it, this hair that now grew on his body. He understood he was developing a man's body, but when he looked on the hair, he saw the body of another.
Basadoni looked at him sympathetically. "I thought not. You have grasped the basics and taken shaving into your own hands, seeing it as a personal task. However, I know you would wish to perform this task properly. Shaving is simple and painless, but not something to be rushed. Always shave with the grain of one's hair, never against. Use oil or lathered cream on the face before shaving. Most importantly, before shaving, always take the time to cover your face with a hot, wet towel for at least ten minutes. This will soften the hairs." He smiled. "And a word of advice: don't shave too close or attempt to shave all the hairs off in one swipe. Make a series of passes."
Entreri logged the information, taking the advice to heart. "Duly noted." He was silent for a moment more, then tried again. "What does it mean if your body produces fluid when you are asleep?" That was the least disturbing way he could think of to ask the question.
Basadoni looked surprised for a split second, but then he was once again stoic. "Ah, you speak of nocturnal emissions, or ihtlam in our local language. When a boy experiences ihtlam, it means he has reached the age of puberty or bulugh." He used Common words first in order to strengthen Artemis' command of the language. He gestured gently. "Ihtlam means that one's body is mature enough to have sex with a woman and produce children."
Entreri felt suddenly ill, although he had no idea why. "I see." His mind flashed back to the ruined blanket he'd slept on the night before. He didn't use his bed, but he did allow himself the blanket. "So it is . . . normal."
"Yes, very normal," Basadoni said. "It is natural for a boy to become a man. Especially, if I am not mistaken, someone your age." Artemis' exact age was a mystery, but he could estimate. "You cannot be much younger than fifteen or sixteen."
"I am sixteen," Entreri said. He didn't know exactly how old he was, and he didn't have a clue when his birthday was. However, he remembered a season of rain before things turned ugly in his household, so he had decided that his birthday would be at the end of spring: Mirtul. He had decided the day would be the 14th because he felt he'd been fourteen when he made lieutenant. It was now midsummer, so he had to be sixteen.
Ironically, it turned out that Mirtul's astrological sign was The Bull, and The Bull's lucky number was 14. The Bull was also known for being practical and determined. Entreri didn't believe in astrology, but it was still fitting somehow.
Basadoni smiled. "Ah. Then you are right on time. A healthy Calishite boy should experience ihtlam at the age of sixteen. You are the traditional age to be entering puberty. This means you are physically healthy; in spite of your initial hardship on the streets, your body has not suffered any long-lasting effects."
Entreri supposed he could take some comfort in that. He fell silent again, however, because he found the general topic of sex to be discomforting. Given what he'd experienced, he couldn't imagine why people were so interested in it. Logic suggested that sex would have to be different between an adult man and adult woman, but he couldn't imagine what it was supposed to be. "The other men talk often about sex. How much of it is boasting and exaggeration?" He'd heard some things that were frankly disturbing.
Basadoni chuckled at the question. "That depends on what has been said and who said it. Generally speaking, however, a man can only have sex with one person at a time, and sex sessions last about twenty minutes. One may perform sex again soon after, depending on one's level of desire and physical fitness, but each session is broken up over a period of time to include rest, water, and food."
Entreri immediately discarded two-thirds of what he'd heard. "I see." Apparently the three-hour-long dogpile was mere posturing. That was actually comforting.
After a moment's reflection, an equally disturbing question hit him. "Is it true that Dancer prefers men?" Dancer was one of the young men who'd secretly watched his initial test of fighting the thug in the street.
Basadoni's eyebrows raised. "I am not familiar with Dancer's sexual preferences. I have never noticed any signs either way. Also, it is not typically my role to inquire about where my men find their sexual pleasure." He paused because it seemed to bother Artemis. Not many things did. "Perhaps it will reassure you to know that the charge of 'preferring men' is a common joke or accusation to inflict on one's peers in your age group. It is not that sex between men is generally frowned upon in Calimshan. You know it is not. But to prefer men, as opposed to paying equal or slightly more attention to women, is a suggestion of being imbalanced."
Entreri decided he'd perhaps asked one question too many. Or rather the wrong kind of question. He was silent for several moments. "I see," he said once again. He could tell the young men were harassing each other with accusations of only bedding men, but he had thought once or twice he might have caught a glance or two his way. Specifically from Dancer. Although he believed he could now protect himself from the horrors he'd experienced as a child, he found he still felt uncomfortable.
Basadoni was curious. "Do you feel threatened by the possibility of another man advertising the desire to bed you?"
Entreri was caught so soundly he hardly knew how to reply. The mere phrase "another man advertising the desire to bed you" sent a chill down his spine. His gaze slipped away momentarily, absently scanning the room. "I do not wish to be propositioned so," he finally replied.
Basadoni smiled. "I am sure you will find a way to dissuade them."
"But of course." Something within Entreri relaxed. Or mostly relaxed, at least. This meant that Basadoni would look the other way if Entreri had to do some particularly forceful dissuading. "Thank you," he said simply. He stood and bowed. "And my thanks for the information."
Basadoni stood and bowed in return, not as deeply, but politely. "Of course. If you wish to discuss anything further, please come. You will always know where to find me."
A faint smile quirked Entreri's lips. "Indeed." He headed back downstairs, far more comfortable in his skin than he had been when he ascended.
In the following two weeks, Entreri did, in fact, publically dissuade a man with an insistent, if drunken, proposition. The young lieutenant made his opinion on the matter quite clear, which meant everyone was clearly warned off, and yet Entreri caught Dancer looking at him from across the dining table. The Basadoni Guild had a communal dining hall that served breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was a modern style dining hall, which meant the table was on tall legs and people sat in chairs. Traditionally, homes had tables low to the floor and pillows around it for sitting on. But they were not precisely a family, and the guild was not precisely a home. Also, it was rare to see anyone leaning on anyone else during dinner, though it was normal for their culture.
Irritatingly, as soon as Entreri caught Dancer he looked away and said something to the young man next to him. They shared a laugh. Dancer kept his eyes averted, chewing his bread innocently.
Until, ten minutes later, Dancer was looking at him again.
It was not that Dancer was unattractive or old. But that was beside the point. Entreri didn't want anyone looking at him that way. And if Dancer disregarded the obvious warning Entreri had issued, then Dancer was a fool, as Entreri had originally suspected.
Granted, Entreri had given Dancer a temporary reprieve. He'd first thought Dancer had left him alone with Theebles because he trusted him, which was naive at best. Later, though, he'd learned that Dancer had hoped Entreri would challenge Theebles - and win. Entreri had spent the first several months in the guild networking, a trait he had quickly learned from Theebles, and Dancer had been among those he'd allied with. Now, though, he felt that sense of threat rising again.
He was not happy with himself for being off-balance in this area.
The most frustrating part was that Dancer was basically likeable and inoffensive. In the two years they'd shared the same guild, Dancer had shown him nothing but respect and acted as a proper ally when inner guild tensions broke out. If Dancer would stop giving him those looks, the man would be beyond reproach.
Again, when Dancer noticed the effect he was having, he looked away. This time he kept his gaze firmly fixed in another direction for the rest of the meal. His friends weren't done eating yet, but as Dancer was not particularly disliked, he wasn't worried about traveling back to his room alone. So he rose from the table and bade his friends good night, then exited the warm, muggy dining hall into the cooler corridor.
Entreri kicked back the rest of his water - he rarely drank anything but water, making exceptions only for milk - and headed after him. He stopped him by a pillar near the stairs, well away from any listening ears. "Your gaze keeps traveling my way," he noted neutrally, keeping his distaste well-hidden.
Dancer stopped short. He looked at Artemis with mortification before schooling his expression. "I meant no disrespect."
Entreri lifted an eyebrow. "I imagine I have made myself clear about such things." Better yet, they both understood that Entreri had Basadoni's permission to slice up anyone who disobeyed. Inner-house slayings were not well tolerated by Basadoni, unless a challenge had been levied and accepted, but Entreri had secured Basadoni's favor.
Dancer bowed, the mortification coming out again. "I did not - I did not intend to proposition you, Lieutenant Entreri. I was - Yajnesh said -" He stopped, his face heating up. "I should not have allowed Yajnesh's teasing to affect my behavior. I should have ignored him instead of humoring him. I apologize." He apparently had no intention of disputing the charge of giving Entreri certain looks.
Entreri considered that Yajnesh, one of the young men Dancer sat next to during mealtimes, was a problem to be dealt with. What Dancer intended by choosing the word 'teasing' was not at all clear. Entreri decided he should press for more information. "And what kind of teasing, exactly, did you succumb to?"
Dancer rose and looked at Entreri warily. Their alliance visibly won out over his alliance with Yajnesh. His expression changed to resignation and a little humiliation. "Yajnesh said that you are handsome. I agreed. But I said...I said that you were a little young for me, and there were other reasons besides. Like the way you dealt with Abaviv a few weeks ago. Your preferences. I would be a fool to cross that line. Yajnesh teased..." He took a deep breath. "He said, 'Maybe in a few years,' and nudged me. I laughed." He shrugged. "Then I said I did not think so, and the conversation was over." He furrowed his brow. "You are handsome, but I have no desire for the unwilling."
Strangely, Entreri found that when he was facing Dancer directly, he didn't feel threatened. Dancer's attitude was not threatening, and Dancer's skill level was not threatening. Clearly the equation by which Entreri became uncomfortable was more complex than he'd originally thought. Surely that was a good thing.
Perhaps equally strangely, Entreri was not offended by the assessment that he was handsome. Again, it seemed to be a product of tone and situation. "That is fortunate." He might need to keep an eye on Yajnesh, however. "As long as you understand my boundaries, I have no quarrel with you."
Dancer bowed again, his body language relaxing. "You will have none. I will comport myself on the correct side of that line and never cross. In the future, I will not allow anyone to talk of you in a shameful or mocking tone, implying this or that. That was my mistake tonight, as was falling into the pitfall instead of actively avoiding it. I will not make this mistake again, Lieutenant Entreri."
If Dancer were a fellow lieutenant, that speech would be overly apologetic. However, he was a full rank below lieutenant, in the reliable, moderately skilled middle rank that made up the bulk of the Basadoni Guild. He would probably always be there, which meant he could not afford to get on the bad side of any of the lieutenants. And yet for all the dry political reasons to be polite, Dancer was not insincere; one of his many bearable qualities was an honesty of emotion.
Entreri nodded. "As you were." And he turned and headed the opposite direction, sorting through this new information.
Apparently a predilection for fellow men was not enough. Dancer was still Dancer. Something else, then, stirred within Entreri on this topic. Something he had yet to place.
The next day at breakfast, Yajnesh approached Entreri himself, without any prodding. Instead of sitting where he usually sat, he sat next to Entreri. "Good morning, Lieutenant Entreri." He grinned and passed the bowl of fruit. "I want to apologize for my careless words last night. I did not know that I had stirred up such troubles."
Yajnesh, like his brother - a lieutenant Entreri competed with - had a thin face, ashy-brown skin, and a large hooked nose. His shoulder length black hair was always well-oiled. Yajnesh's older brother, Yadav, was similar-looking. However, the similarities ended there.
Where Lieutenant Yadav excelled at swordsmanship, Yajnesh was a spy who rarely, if ever, drew a weapon.
Entreri, of course, did not trust Yajnesh whatsoever, just as he did not trust Yadav. However, he didn't pass up the chance to talk to the man. Gathering insight into the brothers could help Entreri. It was wise to know one's allies; it was wiser to understand one's enemies. "What troubles?" he murmured, taking a grapefruit and cutting it in half.
Yajnesh laughed. "Dancer told me not to speak with him anymore and to refrain from lewd comments about you. Now I do not recall making lewd comments, but perhaps the mind of someone like that works differently, no?" He'd taken an orange for himself and peeled it while he talked. He popped a section in his mouth and ate it. "Like beauty, words often are in the eyes of the beholder. Or the ears."
Entreri ate a bite of his grapefruit. "I don't see that your conversation with Dancer impacts me." Even he understood that he could not control what others said about him behind his back or thought about him in their own minds. Granted, he intended to only increase his fearsome reputation, but people said what they wanted in the privacy of their own quarters.
Yajnesh shrugged. When the person next to him passed the bread, he took a sweet roll and passed the basket on to Entreri. "No? But I would rather have an amicable relationship with you than a retaliatory one. You are an interesting man. A rising star, as Pasha Basadoni says. It would be wise to have you for an ally. Likewise, you and Yadav need not be competitors."
Entreri smelled the manipulation right away. Still, if he could close the gap between Yadav and himself, it would be to his benefit. And the way to Yadav was definitely through Yajnesh; everyone knew this. If nothing else, Entreri could gain new intel. He accepted the bread basket, selecting a biscuit and passing it on. "Indeed," he said simply.
Yajnesh nodded enthusiastically and grinned. His teeth were straight and white. He and Yadav came from an upper class background, and rumors said that they were possibly half-elven. Half-elves were rare in Calimport. At least, the recognizable ones were. Because of the prejudice half-elves faced, every half-elf who could pass for human did so.
"Yadav has often said that he wishes to know you better," Yajnesh said. "There is no need to be enemies. In fact he admires you; to be promoted so young, and to take the place of such a useless bag of camel dung, truly we should be friends. As you know my brother became lieutenant at the age of nineteen. Back then he was the youngest in the guild. He can sympathize with how it feels to be apart from the other high ranking members of the guild. It is insulting to associate with others your age who are not so accomplished. My brother and I can offer the company of equals."
Entreri found the play to be excessively heavy-handed, although Yajnesh showed some understanding of him to appeal to his pride. He was quite suspicious, but he was also confident in his abilities. Surely he could turn this situation to his benefit. "And what do equals do, if I might ask?" Given the brothers' background, Entreri doubted they truly considered him an equal, but he would change their minds through the sheer press of time alone. After all, he intended to be the best. Always.
Yajnesh shrugged. "Whatever they please. My brother and I enjoy sitting down after a hard day's work and enjoying the music of some of the skilled concubines in Pasha Basadoni's harem. We drink - though I know you do not indulge that way out of fear. Sometimes we play cards or dice, without high stakes." He chewed his breakfast roll. "You might be surprised at the joy a simple game can bring. When wins and losses do not correlate to pain or death, one enjoys the luck of it."
Entreri had no interest in gambling. He horded every gold piece he earned, for he intended to never be destitute again. However, if he learned the games often played in Calimport, he could move in and out of gambling dens, accruing information without the loss of coin. It could be worthwhile. "Very well."
He did not respond to the accusation that he didn't drink out of fear. It was bait he would not rise to.
"Yadav will be pleased," Yajnesh said cheerfully. "He is tired of trying to outwit me. Of course, as a newcomer, there will be no stakes. The point is to play for the fun of it, and having stakes too early on might make enjoyment difficult. Are you free at midnight tonight?"
Entreri's task tonight was merely to spy. He estimated he would be back no later than half past eleven. He nodded. "Midnight it is."
"Excellent." Yajnesh passed the pitcher of milk.